The Best of Ed Welch – Selling Popcorn and Shoes
The Business of Doing Business in Antiques
By Ed Welch
In the early 1970s, I did a lot of business with a dealer who sold Period American Furniture. 90 percent of her stock consisted of “city-made” pieces such as highboys, chests, desks, tilt top tables and chairs. About ten percent of her stock was made up of “country-made” furniture. Her country-made furniture included Queen Anne and Chippendale style highboys, chests on chests and slant front desks.
At that time, city-made Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal, and to a lesser extent, Empire, was constructed of hardwood such as mahogany, walnut and some cherry. Country-made Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal and Empire was constructed using pine and poplar. The painted furniture that we now call country furniture was simply called primitives. Today’s category, primitives, was known as farm-made or user-made.
Mary Lee preferred furniture from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. She did not buy city-made furniture from New York, especially that of the upper Hudson River Valley which she considered to be built out of proportion.
Common word usage has changed the meaning of furniture categories. Period American Furniture now includes city-made and country-made examples. American Country Furniture now includes painted and paint decorated furniture and accessories. Primitive is now the name we give to farm-made and user-made items.
It is necessary to know the 1970s furniture categories to understand some of the points I will make in this article.
Mary Lee Tracy (not her real name) specialized in city-made Period American Furniture. More than 90 percent of her stock consisted of the city-made pieces. Her second line of furniture, as she called it, consisted of country-made Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture such as highboys, slant front desks, chests, and chests on chests. She did not carry primitives, which she considered junk, and certainly no user-made items.
At that time, I was a young aggressive picker, a wholesaler of sorts. As such, I would bring to her shop items I hoped she would purchase. Mary Lee was a good customer. She would buy nearly every piece of city-made furniture that I offered to her. She seldom argued price but I knew how to keep my asking prices to what was considered the wholesale level.
I tried for several years to convince her to start carrying Painted American Furniture then called primitives. She politely declined. I once offered to her a signed duck decoy made by a renowned maker. She declined, shaking her head from side to side and chuckling to herself. She was amazed that I would offer her such a thing. When I persisted – explaining to her that many high-end dealers were now handling Painted American Furniture and duck decoys, which they marketed under the new catch phrase, “Folk Art” — Mary Lee suddenly became serious and stern.
“Ed,” she said, “After all these years, you have yet to figure out why I am an antiques dealer.” “Ed,” she went on, “I am an antiques dealer because I love antiques. I enjoy buying antiques. I enjoy owning, cleaning and reselling antiques.” Making money is not the only reason or even the major reason why some people choose to become antiques dealers.”
Mary Lee added, “I know that I could make more money if I handled painted furniture and things like your so-called Folk Art decoy, which, by the way, was carved in the 1940s and has no business in an antiques shop.”
“I sell antiques because I purposely choose to deal in antiques. I want to carry American antiques made before 1820. I will buy American made French influenced Empire furniture made as late as 1835. Please do not try to sell to me painted furniture, user-made furniture, and 50-year-old carvings marketed under a purposely made category called Folk Art.”
“As a businessperson, I could make much more money selling popcorn and shoes. The demand for popcorn and shoes is constant and stable. The ability to replace sold stock is built into the system. The profit margins are stable. If I were in business for the sole purpose of making money, buying and selling antiques would be the last thing that I would consider. Torn Shirt Stanley with his yard full of junk and clutter makes more money than most antiques dealers.”
Torn Shirt was a derogatory name given to the local junk dealer. Stanley must have owned a dozen shirts, each with an obvious large tear, some mended, others not. Although seemingly poor, he owned homes in Maine, Georgia and Florida along with several tracts of undeveloped real estate on the Maine coast. He made himself rich selling other people’s junk.
I have not thought of Mary Lee Tracy in years. Recently, a conversation with a collector/dealer about slow sales and bad business brought Mary Lee to mind. The collector/dealer is selling her shop because of lack of sales. She hopes to move into two group shops that attract vendors who carry fine antiques.
I have known this collector/dealer for nearly 30 years. Her merchandise will not sell in a group shop setting. I did not tell her this because she did not ask for my opinion. The type of antiques this dealer carries requires one-on-one interaction in order to make a sale. The only way her antiques will sell in a group shop setting is if prices are low. This dealer cannot sell at low prices because she is emotionally driven to buy and pays too much for the things she does buy.
I have often heard her say, “Keep the best and sell the rest.” Her home is full of fine antiques that many dealers would gladly overpay to own. Her shop is full of her mistakes and items she has grown tired of owning. All her merchandise is overpriced when condition, style and form are taken into consideration. It is not surprising that such items are hard to sell.
Mary Lee Tracy bought and sold only the best. Her antiques were expensive. However, there is a major difference between expensive antiques and overpriced antiques. Mary Lee taught me that the best antiques sell despite the high price. Mary Lee had a well-defined business plan. She was willing to trade off slow sales for large profits. She bought within a limited range and demanded quality. If she made a mistake, she would suffer the loss herself by selling that item at local auction. She did not try to recover her cost by passing her mistakes on to the next owner.
The lesson that I have learned from most collector/dealers is that mistakes and second-ranked merchandise are hard to sell under most conditions and impossible to sell when they are overpriced.
I have never tried to write a business plan for a collector/dealer, put pencil to paper and establish goals, objectives and methods. I assume that building a collection would have a high priority and that making money in the short-term would have a low priority.
One issue that would require much consideration is how to dispose of mistakes and items that the collector no longer wants. My judgement is that operating a private shop to dispose of such items would have a low priory. The cost of operating a shop would add unnecessary expense. The cost of doing shows and paying booth rent in a group shop would also add unnecessary expense. Auction disposal of unwanted items would seem a logical solution. However, this solution may not be right for all collector/dealers. Only a carefully prepared business plan will guide a collector/dealer.
One thing that I do know is that selling a privately owned shop and moving to a group shop because of slow sales will not increase sales for most collector/dealers.
1. Why are you an antiques dealer? To make money? To build a collection? To have fun? For something to do in retirement? Other reasons?
2. Do you have goals and objectives?
3. Do you have a business plain that details how your goals will be met?
4. Do you have a well thought out plan on how you will replace sold stock?
5. Do you have money set aside to purchase new stock?
6. Do you know how much you spend to buy new inventory (travel, hotels, auction fees)?
7. Do you know how much you spend selling your stock (travel, hotels, booth rent, auction commissions)?
Write your answers on paper in the form of descriptive paragraphs. Do not cheat by using single word answers and short sentences. These are essay questions.
Finally, the big question. Would you make more money selling popcorn and shoes?
As many of you are aware, our friend Ed Welch passed away in October, 2012. His wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit will be greatly missed. At the request of many of our loyal readers we’ve decided to publish some of their favorite columns from past years.